Wednesday, August 6, 2014

TMFW 48 - Puff, The One Hit Wonder

Lenny Lipton is a Cornell physics graduate in the class of 1962.  He is "recognized as the father of the electronic stereoscopic display industry," and  "was the lead inventor of the current state-of-the-art technologies that enable today's theatrical filmmakers to project their feature films in 3D."  He holds over 50 patents, including whizbang-sounding inventions such as "electrostereoscopic eyewear," "synthetic panoramagram," and "autostereoscopic lenticular screen."  His inventions have been used by NASA and its contractors on the Mars rover and the Hubble Space Telescope.  The dude is way smart.
Lipton was also a prolific filmmaker in his younger days: from 1965-75 he made 25 short films.  His filmography is now a part of the Pacific Film Archive at the Berkeley Art Museum.  Lipton was also a successful author, having written several books about filmmaking technique including "The Super 8 Book," "Independent Filmmaking," and "Lipton on Filmmaking." 
But to the world outside of 3-D tech and independent film (I guess that's pretty much the whole world when you round down), Lipton is most famous as a songwriter.  This is true even though he wrote only one song in his life, and did so inadvertently.
While a 19-year-old undergrad at Cornell in the spring of 1959, Lipton made plans to have dinner with his friend Lenny Edelstein.  Having some time to kill before then,  Lipton stopped by the Cornell library.  He picked up a book of poems by Ogden Nash, and read his 1936 work "The Tale of Custard the Dragon."  The poem is about a girl named Belinda who lives with a small menagerie of pets, including a little dragon named Custard.  In the poem, a pirate attacks the house and Custard eats him. 
After reading the poem, Lipton continued on to his friend's house, thinking about Custard (and, according to the frequently copy-pasted story, about his own reluctant transition to adulthood).  When he found that his friend wasn't home, Lipton let himself in (this was the 50s in upstate New York) and decided to write his own poem.  He used the typewriter of his friend's roommate Peter, and knocked out the verses in just a few minutes.  Satisfied with his effort, he left the poem in the typewriter when he finished. 
That would have been the end of the story, but as fate would have it Lenny Edelstein's roommate was Peter Yarrow, Cornell class of 1959.  Peter was into folk music, and upon finding the poem in his typewriter he set the verse to music and began performing it.  Just shortly after graduation from Cornell, Yarrow moved to New York City, where he met his future bandmates Noel "Paul" Stookey and Mary Travers.  They called themselves Peter, Paul, and Mary and enjoyed almost instant success on the folk scene.  In January 1963, the group released their second album.  Among the tracks on that record was the song based on Lipton's poem: "Puff, the Magic Dragon." Prior to the release of the song, Yarrow tracked down Lipton to let him know about his poem's unexpected life, and gave him a songwriting credit for the lyrics. 
"Puff" was the third single from the record, and it was a major hit.  It reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the "easy listening" chart.  It has been a steady hit with kids and hippies since then, and was adapted into several animated programs in the 1970s. 
Given the prolific career Lipton has enjoyed, perhaps "Puff"'s biggest legacy is all of the technological achievement that it has funded.  In a blog post 45 years later, Lipton reflected on his poem, and noted with thanks that "Puff was my financier. Puff funded my work in electronic stereoscopic displays...He never grilled me at a board meeting, he never lectured me about having to make a profit, he never told me that I had to cut out projects I loved...Puff’s been a generous, forgiving and kindly investor – one who has never stopped giving."
BONUS (NOT REALLY) FACT (JUST A LITTLE OBSERVATION):  Today's write-up was inspired by my visit this past weekend to the Field of Dreams movie site.  The field and the farmhouse are still there, largely untouched.  It is free to visit, and you can bring your glove and play catch with your kids (or your mom or dad.)  We had a really nice time there; if you are ever near Dubuque Iowa it's worth a detour.  Whenever I watch the last few minutes of Field of Dreams, I cry like a little baby.  As a kid, "Puff, the Magic Dragon" had the same effect. 
BONUS FACT 2:  As Lipton's blog post indignantly declares, despite the names "Jackie Paper" and "Puff, the Magic Dragon," the poem was not written as a coded song about drugs.  Lipton writes: "[w]hen I wrote Puff I didn’t know from marijuana.  We’re talking about Cornell in 1958.  People were going to hootenannies – they weren’t smoking joints.  It was Pete Seeger and 'Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,' not  'One Toke Over the Line Sweet Jesus.'"


  1. I too remember being moved to tears by "Puff" as a kid. Watching this video just now, that darned dragon nearly got me again.

  2. When I was in film school in the 70's every one had a copy of "Independaent Filmmaking" under their arm. It was our bible. I still consider it one of the great "empowerment" manuals of all time. Right up there with "Computer Lib" and "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain".